Any conspiracy theorist will tell you that the 1969 Apollo 11 lunar landing was a cold-war hoax staged in a Hollywood studio, but thus far only Tom Sachs has had the wherewithal to show us how this might have been possible. Marking the closing of his five-week-long exhibition “Space Program” at Gagosian Gallery, on Saturday night Sachs proved, in a private performance activating the show’s sculptural elements, the plausibility of a simulated moon mission.
I arrived at the Beverly Hills gallery at 6:30 PM sharp. With clearance from a beefy doorman, a twiggy gallery assistant, and a spiffy attendant in lab coat and tie, I made my way toward Sachs’s towering Lunar Module, a life-size reproduction of the historical NASA capsule and the remarkable centerpiece of the show. Laurie Anderson may have been the first NASA artist in residence, but with this exhibition Sachs looks to be making his own gambit for the gig, though his craft’s homespun engineering speaks to his clever and cultivated “failure” to live up to such institutional standards. A subdued crowd meandered around the rough-and-ready structure while inspecting its down-to-earth craftsmanship and accoutrements (a tool cabinet, Marlboro reds, Jack Daniels, an “Incinolet” lavatory, a library).
In anticipation of the “launch,” I claimed my own space in the adjacent Mission Control—a room featuring a bank of live-feed video monitors, radios, light-up APPLAUSE and QUIET PLEASE signs, and LED displays flanked by a cache of Stolichnaya vodka and assorted LPs—where a restrained group of collectors, artists, and curators gazed at a digital countdown to “liftoff.” Thanks to the early call time, by T-minus-twenty-three minutes the crowd was already packed shoulder to shoulder. Behind me, a silver-haired gentleman exclaimed, “Look at all that video . . . This belongs in the Whitney!” while to my right, Miranda July wondered aloud, “Why was it so important to be here at 6:30?” Breaking the fourth wall and the otherwise placid atmosphere, a team of “engineers” (an all-male cast of preparators, welders, carpenters, and gallery associates in lab coats, comb-overs, pocket protectors, and thick-framed glasses) bustled about, exchanging commands over walkie-talkies.
Finally, a drum roll sounded, and two female astronauts wearing Sachs’s Tyvek plastic Space Suits were escorted into Scissor Lift and raised up to the Lunar Module entrance hatch. After a status check of reentry, splashdown, and rescue systems, the women were thrust into space to the sounds of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and a Neistat-brothers film heralding “Just remember who beat the Russians.” Fully immersed in the action, a French woman asked, “So the thing has landed on the moon now?” Indeed it had. The astronauts disembarked and planted a starched American flag in Gagosian’s cement floor. As they took out a drill and pretended to break more ground, an amused Chris Burden asked, “Are they going to plant another flag?” His wife, Nancy Rubins, replied, “No, they’re just taking soil samples.” With “moon rocks” in tow, the women reboarded their capsule and, after more playacting at procedural fuss, returned safely to Earth and to the prompted applause of the crowd.
The artist emerged from the control room and began shaking hands with the crew and with collectors. The Veuve Clicquot began to flow, as did liquid-nitrogen-chilled vodka served in Borosil glass beakers. I noticed Sachs cornered by a keen John McCain look-alike who was explaining that he once worked for NASA and was amazed by Sachs’s factual accuracy. Later, I asked the enthusiast whether he was a collector, and to my surprise, he did collect—space memorabilia! He had heard of the event on Collectspace.com, an online message board, and, as a local Beverly Hills resident, decided he had to stop by.
Left to my own stargazing, I spotted a conspicuously alone Adrian Grenier examining the ersatz Gatorboard NASA logo on the wall. When asked what he thought of the performance, the actor nebulously replied, “It’s incredible to relive the dream here on Earth,” then recommended I have more champagne before crawling inside the capsule for myself. I willingly complied and carefully maneuvered my pumps up the aluminum ladder and into the entry hatch. In the claustrophobic cabin, a group of young partygoers (including a ten-year-old boy ogling the wall of whiskey bottles) soaked up final views of Sachs’s handiwork.
As the guests began to disperse (a select few made for the intimate after-party at West Hollywood’s El Coyote cafe), an energetic Gagosian staffer called me over to present me with official “Space Program” merchandise: a T-shirt (not for sale, following a cease-and-desist order from NASA) decorated with a Lunar Module silk screen and two appliqués—an American flag on the arm with GAGOSIAN GALLERY written underneath and a NASA patch with Sachs’s signature stitched over the heart. With my new uniform came a welling pride in becoming a part of Team Sachs.